The Bureau of Land Management actively manages 22.9 million acres of public land in Utah, which constitutes about 42 percent of the state. All told, the federal government owns more than 35 million acres in the state, or 67 percent of the land — the second-highest percentage after Nevada. It is not surprising, then, that local residents don’t always agree with how the federal government approaches this tremendous responsibility.
It can be difficult to reconcile the needs and wants of different constituencies with differing and contradictory ideas as to how public lands ought to be used and maintained. A certain amount of tension is therefore to be expected. No single solution will satisfy everyone. Disagreements about land use need to be handled within the legal and administrative systems.
Frustration with the BLM is no excuse for individuals to take the law into their own hands. The recent standoff in Nevada provides a prime example of the wrong way to resolve public land disputes.
Still, rural Utah has a history of reasons to be wary of the federal government’s management of its stewardship in the Beehive State. Many still speak of the debacle surrounding the birth of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument as if it happened just yesterday, and not 18 years ago. The blatant federal overreach and lack of local input that characterized that event seems, in many cases, to be representative of how Washington does business with federal land in the West.
However, much has changed over the past two decades.
In 2009, the Washington County lands bill passed by Congress represented a compromise, passed with the input of stakeholders across the ideological spectrum. Environmentalists and developers alike applauded the legislation, which provided clarity in determining whether a particular piece of land would be placed “off limits,” or whether the acreage would be available for multiple and private uses.
Achieving that kind of clarity for all public lands is one of the biggest challenges facing the state. Too much Utah land has been in limbo for too long. Since the passage of the Washington County bill, other counties have been working to secure federal legislation — necessary because the federal government is effectively the landlord — to provide the same sort of clarity.
There are too many, however, who are impatient with the process. Some of these voices want the BLM to completely step aside and give all the land back to Utah.
Those who take this position are overlooking that state management itself won’t necessarily be all that different from federal management. Would the governor of the state of Utah, if the federal lands were under his control, allow unrestricted cattle grazing or energy exploration in sensitive wilderness areas?
Instead of the federal government, state agencies would likely become the new target for those who currently rail against the BLM. Although we encourage greater private-sector involvement in land management, there is no workable scenario that does not include some kind of government oversight.
The BLM can do better in being sensitive to the needs of the people it serves. But the process requires patience from all sides, along with respect for the rule of law and administrative processes for the resolution of disputes.